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The last of the Dunnes: ‘Someone in a bar said, You are like the Kennedys. That really offended me’

Actor Griffin Dunne on his Irish-American family, including his father Dominick Dunne and sister Dominique, who was murdered as a young woman

Griffin Dunne: 'At the worst points in our lives, we laughed our asses off. And that is what got us through it all.' Photograph: Brigitte Lacomb

The Friday Afternoon Club, Griffin Dunne’s study of his uniquely troubled (and often triumphant) American family, is divided into two parts of unequal length. The book’s longer opening section breathlessly introduces us to an array of originals. Dominick Dunne, the author’s father, began as a film producer, fell on hard times and then reinvented himself as the foremost chronicler of high-profile crime. His mother, who had multiple sclerosis for close to two decades, was an avid campaigner for victims’ rights. His uncle was the screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. That made his aunt the hugely celebrated author Joan Didion. Griffin himself found fame as an actor in the films An American Werewolf in London and After Hours while developing a parallel career as producer and director. All those relatives are now dead.

“The fact that they had passed on gave me the time to really reflect on their character,” Dunne says. “Everyone except for my brother was gone. I was able to see the arc of their remarkable character.”

Two-thirds of the way through The Friday Afternoon Club, we reach part two. Those unfamiliar with the saga will have learned the key facts in Dunne’s prologue. In the autumn of 1982, Dominique Dunne, the author’s sister, was strangled to death by a former boyfriend, John Sweeney. The subsequent trial – which Dunne’s father famously covered for Vanity Fair magazine – ended in a controversial verdict of voluntary manslaughter. Sweeney served just three and a half years.

The book’s structure suggests family members see that event as a fulcrum around which their lives swivelled. Dunne is still aggrieved at the judge’s decision to exclude important evidence. He is bitter about the lost potential. One can hardly blame him for placing the incident at the centre of his chronicle. As he was writing chronologically, he felt he could see the “headlights” of the murder coming towards him.


“I felt I had written all the fun stuff,” he says. “And I knew that the tone was going to change. So I just said, ‘Part two’. That gave me the freedom to just state the facts – the procedural facts that happened in the courtroom – and then comment on them. I hope the reader by that time would understand how the narrator felt and I could just describe the multitude of injustices.”

He puts some of those injustices down to the judge’s perception that the Dunne family was representative of high society.

“I think he looked at us as a certain kind of privilege, as if we had some kind of entitlement,” Dunne says. “He didn’t take us for the bewildered spectators that we were. He must have put some sort of judgment on us. In point of fact, my father was not in any way famous or successful. He had lost everything. He was living in this tiny little apartment in New York, and my mother was handicapped. My aunt and uncle were famous.”

The Dunne family, Irish-American on the father’s side, enjoyed a far-from-blissful passage through the decades. Towards the close of the book Dunne writes about his marriage, in 1989, to the actor Carey Lowell. Archly gesturing towards his own background, he notes that the Lowells were a “family in which not one member was a drunk, killed themselves, had mental illness or got murdered”.

My great-grandfather had really come from nothing and created something huge. He was compared all the time to Joe Kennedy

It is sentimental to talk of curses, but the unhappiness visited on the Dunnes is close to biblical. There was Dominique’s murder. There was her mother’s illness. There was her father’s career stumble in the later 1970s. Alex Dunne, Griffin’s brother, struggled with the most severe mental illness.

“I think there was a very dark season,” Dunne says. “If I was to pinpoint it, it would be the moment my mother came downstairs holding a cane to tell her children that she probably will end up in a wheelchair. The inciting incidents started to happen closer together. So by the time of the trial and the verdict we just thought, Oh, f*ck! You just don’t want to answer the phone. ‘What is going to fall out of the sky now?’ In moments of self-pity I would use the C-word – ‘curse’. Why is all this happening? Someone in a bar said, ‘You are like the Kennedys.’ That really offended me.”

That’s an important comparison. In The Friday Afternoon Club, Dunne writes about his early obsession with the Kennedys and with one member in particular. He himself was born in 1955 and was therefore comfortably old enough to remember JFK’s presidency and his assassination. For years he pretended to friends that he had met the great man. Meanwhile, his dad harboured a resentment of the better known Irish-American clan.

“My great-grandfather had really come from nothing and created something huge,” Dunne says. “He was compared all the time to Joe Kennedy. The difference was that the Dunnes of Hartford knew who the Kennedys were, but the Kennedys had no idea who the Dunnes were.

“That was the beginning of a competitive animus that was really one-sided, from the time my aunt married into the Dunne family and her father was Joe Kennedy’s business partner. He was screwed over by Joe Kennedy after Prohibition when he sold their liquor company behind his back.”

Dominick Dunne emerges as a great keeper of secrets. By the time of his death, reinvented, in part, by his coverage of Dominique’s trial, he was a giant of American magazine journalism. His reporting on the OJ Simpson trial was essential reading in the mid-1990s. He also did celebrated work on the trials of the Menéndez brothers and Claus von Bülow. But he remained private about his own inner life. Griffin Dunne initially knew little about his dad’s heroic exploits in the second World War. The truth of the older man’s bisexuality came out gradually.

“Well, in that generation of men, being Catholic, your shame is contagious,” Dunne says. “He was not a particularly masculine person. He had obsessions with movie stars, while his older brother was a great athlete. He was made to feel ashamed of the things he cared about. I can only imagine, as he got a bit older, there was this shameful secret that he was attracted to people of the same sex. My God, to have those feelings in the 1930s in a Catholic household must have been an unbearable burden.”

Those very few actors who have had a long career were incredibly smart about the choices that they make. I felt the opposite of smart

In the middle of all this chaos, it is easy to lose sight of the author himself. Dunne has fun describing an early life lived in the penumbra of fame. He was a close friend and flatmate of Carrie Fisher at the time she embarked on some science-fiction film whose title he initially couldn’t get right. “It sounds like you’re saying ‘Stah-weres’. Is it one word or two?” he remembers asking her.

He got roles here and there. He was terrific as the ever-decaying victim in An American Werewolf in London, John Landis’s 1982 film. He was better still as protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, from 1985 – the ultimate yuppie-nightmare comedy – and, as Hollywood quaked at Muammar Gadafy’s threats to bomb US flights into Europe, was one of the few to accompany that film to Cannes. He has become a prolific director and producer. He remains a busy character actor. But he didn’t quite become a movie star.

“I was wary,” he says. “I had the business acumen as a producer about what good material was. For some reason I wasn’t very good about that, being an actor. I just didn’t feel strong in that category. That was about identity and knowing who you were enough to make the right choices – that’s the movie you should do; that will take you to the next point. Those very few actors who have had a long career were incredibly smart about the choices that they make. I felt the opposite of smart.”

He is far from dumb. An agreeable man, happier to pull apart his own life and read the entrails than many would be, he is now in the eerie position of going forth as among the last of the Dunnes. As he mentioned earlier, only he and Alex remain from those generations. Dunne represents the troubled clan with a fatalistic humour he attributes to Irish roots.

“We see things differently. We can laugh at really dark subjects,” he says. “At the worst points in our lives, we laughed our asses off. And that is what got us through it all.”

The Friday Afternoon Club: A Family Memoir, by Griffin Dunne, is published by Grove Press UK